Insider Tips On Copyright

By Paula Constance

You may know that you do not have to register a copyright in order for your work to be protected under U.S. Copyright law. A work is protected the moment it is "created and fixed in a tangible form of expression" (e.g. when it is recorded or written down). That gives you some peace of mind. But proving ownership and establishing your creation date if someone infringes on your rights is often where the controversy begins. Therefore, one of the best things you can do to protect your original music is to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office before you perform your songs or distribute your CDs.

Will Notarized Mail or a Date/Time Stamp Protect my Work?
One of the longest standing urban legends is that all you need to do to protect your work is put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself. The idea is that if someone were to illegally use your work, or worse, claim that it is actually their work, you could arrive at the court house with a sealed envelope and offer it as proof of creation and copyright ownership. The same theory applies to using an electronic "date time stamp" on your recordings before uploading them to a song database or websites.

Among the many problems with these methods, the greatest is that neither creates an actual legal document representing your entitlement to copyright protection in a work. Also, with a date/time stamp, there is no record of who are the authors of the work(s) or what were their contributions to the CD. Did they all write the music? What about the lyrics? Are they all claiming rights in the recorded performance? Filing a copyright registration and depositing a copy of your work with the Copyright Office can alleviate these problems.

Risks of Not Filing
Moreover, if you do not file a copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, there are limitations to the amount of damages you can receive in the event of an infringement. If you do not file a copyright registration and someone infringes your work many thousands of dollars that could have been awarded to you per infringement could be lost (that is, for each and illegal copy or use). There are examples of civil sanctions of up to $30,000 per infringing act, or up to $150,000 per each willful infringement. Only by registering with the U.S. Copyright Office will the law provide you full redress.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
For works created after 1978, copyright protection lasts the author's lifetime plus 70 years. That's another important reason to create a lasting evidence of your creation of a work. Copyright protection under U.S. law is virtually worldwide. A U.S. Copyright is recognized in over seventy Berne Union countries and anyone from any country can file for U.S. copyright protection with the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.

Don't Guess on Form Spaces
There are a few things you should know before completing a copyright form. If you find yourself guessing how to list multiple authors and different claimants, derivative works (based on an earlier work or works) or if you run into some other tricky copyrights questions, these just may be the longest ten spaces you have ever completed.

There are a few key points that will make it easier for you. For example, the underlying musical work and the recording of the work are two separate things. This is important because it will determine which form you use to file (Form PA - Performing Arts to register the underlying work or Form SR - Sound Recordings to register the recording) and what your claim to copyright in that work (or works) will cover.

Does it Matter if a Company or Individual(s) Owns the Work?
Many musicians have independent publishing companies or recording studios and want to know if they should be listed as the owner(s) of the copyright as individuals or whether their company owns the copyright. Generally, the answer is a result of contracts made and the copyright law's treatment of the work as a "Work Made for Hire." Proper designation is important for future users of the work.

What About Copyright Filing Tools?
Although you can download the forms for free from the U.S. Copyright Office, there are online filing services that make it easier.